The union representing ground workers at American Airlines says it could take a big step toward a strike.
Both the Transport Workers Union and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said Wednesday they will ask federal mediators to release them from negotiations with the airline in March if no contract agreement is reached.
If federal mediators agree, it could start the countdown toward a strike this spring. The president or Congress can block strikes, which have become very rare in the airline industry.
Both the TWU and APFA are hoping that a more labor-friendly federal administration will side with them, allowing the unions to strike.
“I absolutely see a picket line in our future,” said Laura Glading, APFA president.
American Airlines spokeswoman Missy Latham released a statement urging patience.
“Talk of an impasse or release (strike) is premature…and that there is still ample time to reach a contract agreement," she said.
Federal mediation generally lasts for a period of up to 19 months before any party is able to request a release from talks.
The unions and American Airlines have been in negotiations since 2006, but federal mediators have only been involved for about a year.
Bargaining in the airline industry is governed by the Railway Labor Act, which bars strikes and lockouts unless the National Mediation Board decides that the talks are hopelessly deadlocked. In that case, the mediation board offers binding arbitration, and if that's rejected by either side, a 30-day "cooling-off" period begins before workers can strike or be locked out.
In 2003, when American Airlines was on the brink of bankruptcy, TWU agreed to some sweeping concessions on salaries and benefits to keep the airline afloat. It took two weeks to negotiate that deal, according to labor leaders.
The unions have been seeking a new agreement with AA since 2006. There’s been progress on the smaller details, but no movement on the larger issues of salaries and health care benefits.
“They’re not only refusing to give us a pay increase, they’re asking for further concessions, and that is absolutely not going to happen," Glading said.
The Fort Worth-based airline views some of the strike talk as red meat for the union’s rank and file membership but understands that the clock is ticking on getting a deal done.
The unions say they believe they’ve heard AA’s best offer.
“At some point, they are going to have to come to the table and put money on that table, or they will have a very, very angry and disgruntled workforce and they will have picket lines," Glading said.
The last time AA employees went on strike was 1993.
The strained labor-management relations at American could test President Barack Obama's administration. The American groups would be the largest in the airline industry to move close to striking.
Although Democrats are often viewed as more sympathetic to labor, the last Democratic president before Obama, Bill Clinton, ordered American's pilots back to work minutes after they struck in 1997.
Last fall, pilots at Hawaiian Airlines asked to be released from mediation, but federal mediators didn't approve the request. Instead, talks continued and led to a successful deal that the union said included pay raises of 15 percent to 22 percent over nearly six years.